8 January 2002
Part 1 Indoors
Some 30 years ago, I spent 2 years in Antarctica and I've just about stopped talking about it now, however from time to time the subject comes up and the same old questions are asked; they ask about the Polar Bears, how often we came home for a holiday and......Just how did we manage at - 50 Celsius.
Its a delicate subject but I guess that one day I'd have to tell. Indoors it wasn't so bad. Halley Bay (76 S 26W) was built on the surface of a massive ice shelf but had been covered in drifting snow for 5 years leaving the buildings 30 foot below the surface; where we lived cosseted in the warmth generated by two Rolls Royce Diesels.
The toilet consisted of a conventional room with two 45 gallon drums set in the floor over a 60 foot deep pit in the ice. The seats were wooden (after a near riot when the base carpenter substituted plastic in a fit of reorganisation in what I was later to understand is called facilities management)
Things were fine for the best part of a year, then one day someone became a little more curious than most of us and noticed the phenomena of a huge spike of frozen faecal matter was projecting upwards from the bottom of the pit to a point of imminent discomfort. This became the subject of an ad hoc working group who decided that there was no alternative to seeking out a volunteer.
There had been a time when we all volunteered, but that time had long passed after the Doc decided to find out how many blood and urine samples we could give in a week when the temperature was -minus 20 to see if there was any physiological difference between us and penguins. In this toilet emergency we simply volunteered the Doc -with some unanimity.
Armed with a felling axe the Doc gingerly stepped onto the top rung of the electron caving ladder and with a little enthusiastic pushing from above was inserted into the pit. Although this was in the days before video we did have a huge Bolex movie camera and I still remember with affection the film made of the efforts of the Doc to use the axe with one hand whilst holding onto the ladder and swinging wildly 50 ft below in the chasm. Of course the temperature was so cold as to make the activity sanitarily safe and somewhat physically similar to that of cutting down a tree. The tower before him now referred to innovatativly as a "turdicle" was duly cut at the base but (and we thought this quite funny) jammed across the pit, knocking off Doc's hat and entirely blocking his exit. The Doc was not amused and he said so!
He had to chop the "trunk" into six foot sections and throw them down the pit by hand to get out.
Nowadays it amuses me to think that all waste is bagged and is removed from Antarctica, but there is still deep below the snows a unique record of our meals in the early 1970s that perhaps some medical researcher in the future will examine with true academic interest and in the quest to help mankind, little realising his proximity to work done by another of his profession in saving us from dire discomfort.
He may also find doc's hat.
See also: Battle of the pit, More Stalagshite, More on the pit, and Felling the turdicle.